The Big Freeze

How and When to Freeze and Unfreeze Your Credit

These days data breaches are almost commonplace — Yahoo in 2013, Equifax in 2017, and Marriott just last year — all of which compromised billions of user accounts and personal details. But even though breaches may seem like old news to you by now, they should still serve as a serious warning. According to research by Javelin, new account fraud is on the rise, and financial losses stemming from it increased from $3 billion in 2017 to $3.4 billion in 2018. Thankfully, there are steps you can take to keep your information safe — as part of the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, credit freezing is now free and easier than ever.

“Credit freezing is really the best way that we have available right now to prevent new account fraud.” says Rob Douglas, identity theft and fraud expert.

Here’s a look at when and how to freeze your credit:

What is a credit freeze?

A credit freeze is a service you can arrange with the three credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to restrict access to your credit report. With a freeze, most lenders can’t see your information until you unfreeze it — and neither can any would-be fraudsters. “What a credit freeze does is prevent someone from opening a new line of credit in your good name — in your good credit — which is really the most difficult type of fraud to combat.” says Douglas.

New account fraud, Douglas reminds us, can be major, and involve a lot more than just a new credit card. Bad guys can even take out a mortgage in your name, or even buy a new car. But a credit freeze can stop them in their tracks. “It’s a proactive approach rather than a reactive approach,” says credit expert John Ulzheimer.

Who are credit freezes for?

Honestly, everyone, explains Douglas. “The reality is that given the deluge of data breaches exposing personal, medical, and financial information in recent years — we all must assume that information for each of us has been put in jeopardy.”

And, says Ulzheimer, if you’re hyper-diligent about protecting your identity and your family’s identity, you can also get a credit freeze for your kid. “With kids you have to create a credit report for them — you’re not born with a credit report — and then have that report frozen.” A freeze prevents someone from using your child’s information (like their Social Security number) to do any number of fraudulent things.

How to freeze

“There is no one-stop shop,” says Ulzheimer. In order for a freeze to be an effective service, you have to freeze your credit reports with all three credit bureaus. “If you don’t freeze all three, then you might as well freeze none of them. It’s like locking some of the doors to your house and not all of them.”

This means you must contact each bureau individually — which you can do online, via phone, or via snail mail — and request a credit freeze. Douglas recommends going online to freeze because the process may go a little more smoothly when you can see everything in front of you. “There will be some information that’s worth reading as you go through it,” he says, since each bureau does things a little differently. For example, you might get a personal identification number (PIN), and that’s easier to copy down accurately when you’re looking at it on a screen, says Douglas. “But sometimes it’s actually faster on the phone system — particularly when you want to lift your freeze,” he notes.

Whether you request a freeze online or through the phone, credit bureaus are required under the new law to fulfill the request in one business day. If you do it through the mail, they have up to three days.

As you plan your freezes, one thing the bureaus might try to sell you is a credit lock, says Douglas. While credit locks are intended to serve the same protective purpose as credit freezes, they are not governed by federal law. Often they are bundled with other services and are not free. In other words, make sure you know exactly what you’re after when you get on the phone.

“Just be sure that you’re placing a credit freeze, which is free. Even if the other services may be tempting, they’re usually worthless for what they charge,” says Douglas.

How to unfreeze

If you freeze access to your credit report, you must unfreeze (or “thaw” as some call it) it before applying for any new lines of credit. Thankfully, the process is quick — the bureaus have one hour to lift the freeze after you call or go online and make the request. “In my experience it’s been practically real-time,” says Ulzheimer. Depending on the bureau and the medium through which you’re requesting the freeze lifted, you might need to provide the PIN number you were given when you froze your credit in the first place. This is why it’s critical that you keep your PIN number safe. If you lose your PIN, you may have to send in identification documents via snail mail in order to regain access to your credit.

When applying for new lines of credit, you don’t know which credit bureau the lender is going to use, so you’ll need to lift your freezes at all three bureaus, or you’ll risk having your application put on hold, says Ulzheimer.

When you lift your credit freeze, you’ll need to let the bureaus know how long you’d like your freeze lifted, and then it will go back into place. For example, you may want your credit thawed for one week while the application for your new car goes through, or you may want it thawed for one month if your application is more involved, as with a new home or mortgage.

With Molly Povich

Jean Chatzky

Jean Chatzky